Just about every time Julie Zetlin has traveled with the hoop that’s an essential part of her sport, rhythmic gymnastics, she has tangled with airline officials, felt the stares of fellow passengers and fielded outlandish questions. “Is that a Hula Hoop?” “Is that something you wear under a dress?” “Are you part of Ringling Brothers?” To flight attendants, Zetlin replies, “Yes, it is permissible carry-on luggage.” To everyone else, she explains, “No, I’m not in the circus!” Zetlin is the first U.S. rhythmic gymnast to qualify for the Olympics since 2004, and though she is heading to London later this month with no expectation of winning a medal in a sport dominated by Russians, her goals are to stage a fearless, mistake-free performance; raise awareness of the sport she loves; and, ideally, inspire the next generation of Americans to surpass her and one day win Olympic gold. She takes no less pride in that.
According to the Boston Herald, Zetlin sat devastated in a hotel room last September in Montpellier, France. She was convinced her Olympic dreams were over. As it turned out, Zetlin was just unclear on the qualifying procedures. Less than five months after having surgery on a torn meniscus, Zetlin gutted out a decent, but not great performance at the world championships which served as a qualifying event for the 2012 Olympics in London. She knew her finish wasn’t good enough to secure the United States an Olympic berth, but in a sport dominated by Eastern Europeans, Zetlin was the top finisher from the Western Hemisphere and earned herself a wild-card bid to the Olympics.
“I think I’m upping the game for U.S. rhythmic gymnastics,” she told The Washington Post. “We’ve been stuck at a certain level for a while, and I think I’m kind of the one that’s crossing the boundary line. I’m just trying to improve my sport and help improve our girls — make them want to work harder and work longer. Too many quit too early and don’t get anywhere.” Zetlin is 22-years-old and rhythmic gymnasts tend to peak later than traditional gymnasts because their sport is rooted more deeply in ballet and performance. They also tend to be taller, given the premium placed on creating fluid, evocative lines with four pieces of equipment — a ball, ribbon, baton-like clubs and of course a hoop, pieces that alternately soar through the air and serve as extensions of their bodies in choreographed routines set to music.